Email Ethics: The Basics of Permission Marketing

Our spam-ridden online world has spurred a lot of talk about permission-based email lists or opt-in email lists. What does the term “ permission-based ” really mean? How can you build a permission-based email list? How do you use email to communicate with your subscribers respectfully?

What is a Permission-Based Email List?

The answer to this question might sound obvious. You might even be able to guess what it means. A permission-based email list is a list of email addresses that has been compiled by receiving permission from the recipients. The subscribers opt-in by completing a form or by sending an email to the list manager. In one of these ways, they make a request to receive offers, information or updates.

Getting Permission

Permission-based may be easy to define, but the part many people are confused about is, “What is permission?”

If I send an email to one million individuals and they do not ask to be removed from my list, does that constitute permission? No.

If a customer overlooks the teeny-tiny lettering at the very bottom of a form with a pre-checked box that says, “Please subscribe me to 100 different email lists so I can be spammed and brutalized by marketers for the rest of my life,” is that opt-in? No.

Yet every day there are marketers and list brokers that will tell you they have opt-in or permission-based email lists. In fact, if you read the spam you receive, you might be surprised – and appalled – to learn how many of those spammers claim they have your permission and are sending you the messages because you “opted-in.”

To get valid permission from a subscriber, there can be no trickery involved. It must be explicit. The language must be clear so your recipients know what they are subscribing to.

A permission system powers legitimate marketing on the Internet, sending personalized messages from companies to their customers. The transmission of unsolicited commercial email is expressly forbidden through this system.

How can you avoid being called a “spammer”?

As an online marketer, there’s nothing worse than being called a Spammer. Here are some tips to avoid this:

• Only email people or companies that you have an existing relationship with. These may include customers, people who request information, people who contact you, vendors and companies for whom you are a customer, and individuals who have expressly shared their address for the purpose of receiving offers and information in the future (opt-in/permission-based lists).
• Personalize your email communication with information that indicates the recipient already has an existing relationship with you or your firm.
• If you use an external source for email list data, require those companies to supply the source of their customer data in case recipients complain about receiving unsolicited email from you.
• Respect your subscriber’s time and attention by controlling the frequency of mailings to individual email addresses.
• If a subscriber asks to be removed, remove them quickly and permanently from your email list.
• Include easy-to-follow instructions for opt-out at the bottom of each mailing you send.
• Include a short explanation at the beginning of each message you send telling your subscribers how they became a part of your list. Did they opt-in? Are they receiving info because they are customers? Be sure to explain.
• Include a link to your privacy policy any time you ask for an email address.

What is a Privacy Policy?

A privacy policy is something you usually see as a link at the bottom of a web page or near the submit button on a form that asks for some personal info. There is no secret formula for the perfect privacy policy. The purpose of this policy is usually to tell customers that you will not share or abuse their information. People want to know what your plans are for their data and why you are asking for it. That’s it.

How Do I Write a Privacy Policy?

I’ve read many privacy policies. Actually, no I haven’t. I’ve only read a few and that was because they were short. Your legal department might have a different take on this, but for most purposes you can keep it short and sweet. One of the best privacy policies that I’ve read said this:

“We will not sell or share your information with anyone! Your information is being collected for the sole purpose of sending you our monthly email newsletter. At any time, you can remove yourself from our email list by following the instructions included at the bottom of each issue.”

It’s short and sweet. And it works.

If you’d like to get a bit more elaborate you can include any of the following items in your privacy policy.
• How you will protect their privacy (security hardware/software)
• Who will be given access to their information at your company
• How they can stop you from sending them email
• An email address they can contact if they have privacy questions or concerns
• The nature of the mailings you will be sending to them
• Your processes for gaining permission from subscribers

You can also find samples at and .

Guard your permission policy and make sure to keep it up to date your subscribers will appreciate it.

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